THE TIMES POLL : As Voters Split on Issues, Clinton Comes Out on Top

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

President Bush questions Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's judgment in participating in demonstrations overseas opposing the Vietnam War, but, according to a Times Poll completed earlier this week, most Americans now look back on that war as a mistake. Sixty percent of all voters think it was wrong to send American troops into combat in Vietnam, while 26% believe the United States was right to fight.

That dissonance underscores the President's challenge in finding issues that will chip away at Clinton's persistent lead in the presidential race during the campaign's final few weeks.

According to the Times Poll--which surveyed 1,833 adults, including 1,545 registered voters Oct. 2-5--public opinion is closely divided on many of the key issues both major party candidates and independent Ross Perot have raised in the 1992 campaign.

But on issues where the poll found a preponderance of opinion, rather than an even split, the public tended toward the view most closely associated with Clinton. That's the case on both broad statements of philosophy, such as whether government should favor the environment or the economy when the two conflict, and specific issues, as when voters were asked to choose between descriptions of the health care plans Clinton and Bush have offered.

And the poll found that those who agree with Clinton's positions on individual issues are generally giving him a higher percentage of their votes than those who agree with Bush. That suggests none of the issues Bush has raised may be powerful enough to revitalize his campaign in an atmosphere of widespread dissatisfaction over the economy.

"When the fundamental issue in the election is how you feel you are doing in the economy," says GOP pollster Bill McInturff, "how you feel about, say, gays, is not strong enough to overcome that."

The issue of gay rights actually illuminates the point. In The Times survey, Americans divided evenly on whether homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the armed forces. Among voters, 46% agree with Bush that they should be barred; 47% agree with Clinton that they should be permitted.

But those who would allow gays to serve in the military prefer Clinton over Bush by an overwhelming 60% to 23%, with 8% backing Perot, while those who want to ban gays from the military prefer Bush over Clinton by a much narrower 45%-35% count, with 11% backing Perot.

On education, the same pattern holds--a split on the issue and a tilt toward Clinton on the vote. Bush has proposed to reform the nation's public schools by giving parents vouchers they could use to help send their children to private schools; Clinton would let parents choose which public school their child attends but opposes private school vouchers.

When read descriptions of these two plans that didn't identify the ideas with either candidate, 41% of voters prefer Bush's version, and 47% Clinton's.

Those who oppose private school choice prefer Clinton over Bush by a 51%-30% margin. But those who support Bush's voucher plan divide evenly, with 42% backing Clinton and 40% the President. Perot attracted 10% from both groups.

This pattern holds even on the emotional issue of Vietnam. The one-fourth of the electorate that thought sending troops was the right decision prefer Bush by 20 percentage points over Clinton, but those who consider involvement a mistake gave Clinton a 33-point margin over Bush. Perot's support is constant at about 1-in-10 of both groups.

Reinforcing Clinton's advantage on most issues where the public is closely divided are signs that voters are breaking toward the Democratic position on other key concerns.

Bush, for example, has tried to paint Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, as environmental extremists who would throw Americans out of work in the name of the northern spotted owl and higher fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. The poll shows that the recession has increased the percentage of Americans worried more about jobs than the environment, but a substantial 48% still want the government to focus on protecting the environment rather than expanding jobs that might endanger it. Thirty percent oppose that environmental focus.

Similarly, Bush warns that Clinton would bloat federal spending and trumpets his contrasting proposal to invigorate the economy with sweeping new tax cuts.

But according to the poll, a clear plurality of voters want to increase spending on domestic concerns, while by a 43%-35% margin, voters believe a new across-the-board tax cut would hurt, rather than help, the economy.

The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, suggests an eagerness for the government to more aggressively confront problems at home. By a 46%-29% margin, those surveyed say they want the government to spend more, rather than less, on domestic programs; and by a 44%-21% margin, voters say the government devotes too little, rather than too much, attention to the problems of minorities. As compared to a year ago, that's a substantial increase in the percentage that sees too little government attention to minority concerns.

Until recent signs that the issue might be backfiring, the GOP had stressed its support for "family values" and sharply attacked those it considered a threat to them--from the Hollywood "cultural elite" to homosexual activists. Clinton has argued that the problems facing families are rooted more in economic strain than moral decline, and by a 50%-30% count, voters agree.

At the GOP convention, several speakers attacked Hillary Clinton for her support of initiatives that would grant children greater legal rights against their parents. But two-thirds of voters said children should be able to "divorce" their parents if there is evidence that they are "unfit"; only a little more than one-fourth disagree.

On health care, opinion also leans toward the Democrats. Clinton has proposed a system of universal health care that would require all employers to insure their workers and enroll the unemployed in an expanded public plan; Bush has offered an alternative that would instead provide the uninsured with tax credits and vouchers to buy private health insurance.

When read descriptions of the two proposals that again did not identify the ideas with either candidate, voters preferred Clinton's plan by 52% to 35%.

Perot's proposals for deficit reduction didn't score well in the survey. By a 69%-27% count, voters oppose the five-year 50-cent increase in the gasoline tax he has put forward; by 65% to 30%, they reject his idea to increase taxation on Social Security recipients earning at least $25,000 annually.

Perot's call for sacrifice appears to be crashing into a continued belief that the deficit could be substantially reduced "just by cutting down on . . . wasteful government spending"; two-thirds of those polled say such cuts could eliminate most or a good part of the red ink.

The Voters' Views: From Welfare to Environment

Americans are divided over many of the major issues facing the nation, a Times Poll has found. Here is how each candidate's supporters feel about various topics: RICH VS. WELFARE: The bigger problem is . . .

All Voters Clinton Bush Perot Undecided The rich not 28% 39% 15% 27% 25% paying enough taxes: Poor getting 30 20 44 34 33 undeserved welfare

DEFENSE CUTS: The money should be spent on . . .

All Voters Clinton Bush Perot Undecided Reducing 41% 34% 52% 39% 36% deficit Domestic 22 28 17 21 16 programs Reducing 21 20 20 25 31 taxes

MINORITY HELP: Federal government has been giving . . .

All Voters Clinton Bush Perot Undecided Too much 21% 15% 29% 25% 11% help to minorities Not enough help 44 58 25 42 43

TAX INCREASE: Would accept a tax hike if money went to reduce deficit . . .

All Voters Clinton Bush Perot Undecided Yes 44% 44% 45% 49% 39% No 46 45 44 48 52

ENVIRONMENT VS. ECONOMY: Favor more protection . . .

All Voters Clinton Bush Perot Undecided Even if it 48% 53% 37% 61% 50% costs jobs

GAYS IN MILITARY: Openly homosexual men and women should be allowed into the armed forces . . .

All Voters Clinton Bush Perot Undecided Approve 47% 59% 32% 40% 47% Disapprove 46 33 61 55 42

Numbers do not total 100% because those who were undecided or offered alternative answers were not included.

How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll interviewed 1,833 adults nationwide, including 1,545 registered voters, by telephone, from Oct. 2-5. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used to ensure that listed and unlisted numbers had an opportunity to be contacted. Results were weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and household size. The margin of sampling error for the total samples of adults and registered voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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